Iraq poll fails to follow US script
By Paul McGeough
Chief Herald Correspondent in Baghdad
Sydney Morning Herald
December 22, 2005
FRAUD allegations, threatened boycotts and a vote along rigid ethnic and religious lines are robbing last week's Iraqi election of its acclaimed certainty as a building block in Washington's democracy plans for the Middle East.
Acknowledging the difficulty of forming a national government for voters from within the ghettos and fiefdoms of their tortured demographics, the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, sounded surprised and despairing. "It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identities," he said. "But for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian co-operation."
As the release of new provisional figures confirmed the stunning success of conservative religious parties - Shiite and Sunni alike - a chorus of foul play erupted from the secular parties that the US had banked on to guide Iraq through the baby steps of its democracy blueprint.
But senior officials of the triumphant religious Shiite coalition are already insisting there is no place for Washington's preferred candidate for prime minister, the secular Iyad Allawi, in the horse-trading to form a government.
Across Baghdad, Sunni leaders, who had boycotted the democratic process up until last Thursday's poll, were claiming that the vote was rigged. They couched their demand for a new election in terms that amounted to a threat to reverse back into the arms of the insurgency that has paralysed the country since mid-2003.
Washington's best hope is that Tuesday's anger and rhetoric are tactical, rather that heartfelt. But its hopes for a government of national unity dimmed as some commentators read the outcome as further proof of a country falling apart, rather than coming together.
Adnan Dulaimi, a senior member of the main Sunni coalition, the Tawafaq Front, said that the provisional results after more than 90 per cent of votes had been counted were "not in the interests of the stability of the country".
He asked: "What would we tell those whom we indirectly convinced to stop the attacks during the election period? What would we tell those people who wanted to boycott and [who] we convinced to participate?"
Other prominent Sunnis were just as voluble. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent former Baathist and a secular candidate, demanded international intervention.
"We call on the President of the United States not to add another mistake to the mistakes already made in Iraq," he said. "This election is completely false ? Everything was based on fraud, cheating, frightening people and using religion to frighten them. It's terrorism more than democracy."
Even Dr Allawi, Washington's lead torchbearer, was threatening to boycott the parliament.
Predictions that the angry Sunnis would get between 40 and 50 seats, most of them to be taken by religious candidates, gave rise to speculation that they would become obstructionist, using the 275-member National Assembly as a second anti-American and anti-Shiite front rather than forgoing the insurgency battle.
The secular Shiite parties and all the Sunni lists are disbelieving of, and humiliated by, the extent of the vote for the religious Shiite parties in the mixed boroughs of Baghdad, which have been allocated 59 assembly seats.
So far, the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance has 58 per cent of the vote. The Sunnis and others believe this is an overstatement of Shiite numbers in the capital. The alliance is now tipped to have about 120 seats.
The Sunni religious Iraqi Consensus Front polled strongly, snaring 74 per cent of the vote in Anbar, the most virulently anti-US province in the country. By comparison, Mr Mutlaq's secular slate scored only 18 per cent.
As a hopeful who is likely to end up controlling 20 seats instead of the 70 of which he dreamt, Mr Mutlaq was in the same boat as Dr Allawi, whose national polling is around the 15 per cent mark. In Anbar, Dr Allawi's list polled a sad 3 per cent.
As Dr Allawi's associates voiced their own complaints of fraud and voter intimidation, a spokesman for the retiring Prime Minister and Shiite religious leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, dealt Dr Allawi out of the post-election game: "We're talking to the Sunnis and Kurds, [but] not many of us are eager to take Allawi on board. I don't think he stands a chance."
The strongest non-religious vote in the assembly will be the more nationalist Kurds of the north, who are expected to have about 50 seats.
There is speculation that they will try to harness disgruntled Sunni MPs in a triangular power-play against the dominant religious Shiites.
The electoral commission insists that results will be checked and cross-checked and that all claims of violations will be investigated before the result is finalised - probably early next month.